We’ve had no shortage of post-apocalyptic nihilism-fests in the last few decades, most of them arguing more or less that humanity will ultimately devolve into a frothing state of nature. The Road allowed McCarthy to showcase his particular virtuosity in bleakness; The Walking Dead routinely executes any character who talks too much about, you know, morality beyond tribalism and survival. Emily St. John Mandel has given us an extraordinary and courageous gift, sending Station Eleven into that conversation on the ultimate end of society to declare “survival is insufficient.”
Station Eleven weaves between the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of players and musicians performing in post-collapse North America, and the modern-day life of actor Arthur Leander and the people in orbit around him. We meet Arthur’s several ex-wives and friends who know him from his humble beginnings on a remote Canadian island to his wild fame in Hollywood. His life, and all the lives it touched, echo past the collapse and reverberate among the survivors now flung across the great lakes.
Besides supporting a plot of Dickensian intricacy, the contrast between the pre- and post-collapse worlds gives us a window into characters who are holding on desperately. The Symphony holds onto art—specifically Shakespeare—to retain something of the old world, or to offer it continuity into the new. Shakespeare himself saw the plague, actor Dieter reminds us, which looked no less consequential to him than the collapse to the Symphony. Kristen, our knife-throwing protagonist post-collapse, is determined that the new world not fall into violence and darkness, but keep its humanity. She should know—she suffers from a PTSD-induced amnesia that obscures her early years in the collapse, and bears two tattoos, one for each of the people she’s killed. Nonetheless, Kristen shows resolve and tenderness. She truly believes the Symphony’s motto that “survival is insufficient.” As a character who’s faced as much as any Walking Dead veteran, she carries some clout when she believes the world can be better. And so we believe her too.
But this desperation, holding out for some sacred, redemptive spark in humanity, isn’t limited to the post-collapse characters. In the modern day, Arthur, his first wife Miranda, and his friend Clark are beset by our time’s own dehumanizing forces. Arthur’s fame closes in around him like the paparazzi who dog his steps, and his own romantic equivocations disrupt his own happiness as well as that of his three wives. Miranda’s heart and soul goes into an art project, her graphic novel, while she spends her actual connecting-with-the-world life almost totally devoted to her logistics job. Clark, a corporate therapist of sorts, has his immense kindness walled into business-speak and strict parameters on how to turn problem managers on a 360° psychological fix. The pressures of modernity begin to look as desperate and hazardous to a human soul as the uncharted post-collapse wilderness is to its wanderers. Clark, one of the best-developed characters, seems to grow into his truer shape as those pressures fall away; he is kind, careful, and reverent. It isn’t that the loss of society suddenly freed him to be so—the collapse does no kindness to anyone—but his transformation reveals the dangers of the pre-collapse world, and how insidious they can be to the deeper parts of a person.
There are a few moments in Station Eleven when the post-collapse characters look back in time and wonder how we could have taken it all for granted. Clark imagines the whole history of a snow globe: how it was built, shipped, stocked, and sold, all those human hands and lives who touched such a simple thing. All the strands of humanity connected to every single thing. That awareness and gratitude lights the whole novel like a candle in that darkened world, giving it more soul than so many of our post-apocalyptic nightmares seem willing to put at hazard. Kristen, Clark, and the others believe in a humanity that can withstand the state of nature, and can endure those parts of modernity that seem to have forgotten the deeper needs of humanity. Station Eleven makes a good case to believe in it as well.